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In the space between words

Janice Muller talks to Heiner Goebbels

Janice Muller is a theatre director and recipient of the 2003 Keith and Elisabeth Murdoch Travelling Fellowship, from the Victorian College of the Arts.

Heiner Goebbels' Eraritjaritjaka Heiner Goebbels' Eraritjaritjaka
photo Mario Del Curto
German composer and theatre director Heiner Goebbels is always good for a surprise. The first in his latest production, Eraritjaritjaka—Museum of Phrases, is the title. The piece premiered at Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne in April and is based on texts by Elias Canetti, the Bulgarian-born German novelist, essayist, sociologist and winner of the 1981 Nobel Prize for Literature. Eraritjaritjaka is an Indigenous Australian word from the Arunta language, defined by Canetti in The Agony of Flies (1992) as meaning “full of desire for something that has been lost.” Goebbels is clearly pleased with the title’s linguistic challenge: “I like to have a curious audience, not one who knows what to expect. With this title I can be sure of that, and as a nice side effect the audience can make a little musical rhythmical experience by learning to pronounce it.”

Once mastered, Eraritjaritjaka flows off the tongue with the complexity and lightness characteristic of Goebbels’ theatrical landscapes. As with the equally tongue-twisting Hashirigaki, which dazzled Sydney Festival audiences earlier this year, Goebbels delivers a riveting collage of text, music, sound, light and image by gathering what appear to be disparate elements and placing them side by side in a theatrical context: “I try to construct theatre using musical criteria. I hold myself back and respectfully allow the individual parts I use to keep their own identity and to develop.”

Eraritjaritjaka incorporates text from Crowds and Power (1960), Auto-da-fé (1935) and the many notebooks recorded during Canetti’s lifetime. Goebbels first encountered Crowds and Power while studying sociology in the 1970s. “Canetti’s political sense for balances and against hierarchies not only meets with mine”, says Goebbels “but also with my interest in avoiding these structures in the use of the medias of theatre.” However, it was only recently, at the suggestion of a colleague, he picked up the notebooks. “After a few words I knew immediately that here was something for me to work on, but also”, he laughs, “as usual, it took me 6 years to do so.” His favourite of the notebooks is The Human Province (1942-1975) for “its dense combination of perspectives on politics and privacy. It’s short, bitter and full of humour at the same time.”

Goebbels was attracted to the way Canetti uses words: “He observes the structure and architecture of language as much as he does the society as a whole. The language is reduced, not a word too much and he hates adjectives.” However, it was Canetti’s thoughts on the relationship between music and language that really made an impact: “The way he described the relationship between words and music was like a description of something I had been experimenting with already in my work...Most importantly, he leaves space between the words, which can be useful for music, to make the structure of the sentences transparent and powerful at the same time.”

Eraritjaritjaka features the music of 20th century composers Shostakovich, Mossolov, Scelsi, Oswald, Lobanov, Bryars and Crumb performed by Amsterdam’s Mondriaan String Quartet. “The decision to incorporate a string quartet was about the character of the music, which I considered to be on a metaphorical level comparable to Canetti’s texts”, says Goebbels. However, perhaps in keeping with the nostalgic mood of the title, Eraritjaritjaka ends with the only non-20th century piece to be included, Bach’s The Art of Fugue.

Also on stage is the extraordinary French actor André Wilms, who delivers Canetti’s broad ranging speculations on human behaviour, the nature of power, privacy, language, history, music and animals, savouring the words while never drawing attention away from their impact. “He is a superb actor” Goebbels enthuses, “with a great intelligent taste and huge musical abilities, without being a musician himself.” This is their third collaboration following Or the hapless landing (1993) and Max Black (1998), both also based on notes and notebooks. “We are very confident with each other... which is the most important condition to create something, when we both don’t know much about it in advance.”

Eraritjaritjaka begins with a string quartet, a bare stage, and Shostakovich’s moody quartet # 8. As the last note resounds, a white strip of light cuts the stage in half. The reverberating sound is stretched and amplified into scraping and tearing, while the light peels back the black floor, replacing it with a crisp white square. A blank page? A mirror? A suited man enters. He contemplates the nature of words and music, his gestures and movements part of the music, the music part of his thoughts and utterances.

Goebbels has worked with long term collaborators Klaus Grünberg (set and lights), Willi Bopp (sound) and Florence von Gerkan (costumes). The stage is initially an exquisite but recognisable landscape of clean geometry, black and white contrasts and arresting lighting. However, the overall effect of Eraritjaritjaka is one of peeling back layers, and it is at the halfway point that Goebbels delivers his major surprise. The actor puts on his hat and coat, steps from the stage and leaves the theatre. A cameraman follows. Suddenly we see projected, on the façade of the house that fills the stage, the actor crossing the theatre foyer and riding in a cab through the streets of Lausanne, all the while observing the world around him and listing possibilities for an imagined reality: “A society where people laugh instead of eating. A society in which people suddenly vanish, but no one knows they are dead, there is no death, there is no word for it, but they are content with that” (Elias Canetti, The Human Province).

Finally he stops to buy a newspaper and walks to a nearby apartment. When he steps inside, we are transported into the cluttered, private world of Canetti’s Auto-da-fé protagonist, sinology expert Professor Peter Stein, a character who can communicate in ancient languages but has difficulty with contemporary interactions. We see him alone with his private thoughts and tasks, haunted by unseen voices. We see him tear off the day’s date from a wall calendar, peruse his mail, prepare an omelet and listen to the evening news while folding his laundry. From the reality of the stage we have been transported into a film and our sense of reality has been disturbed. This is heightened, when in a remarkable moment, the string quartet is suddenly there in the apartment, playing Ravel, among the professor’s library.

Goebbels never forgets the logic of the stage and in incorporating the use of live video, he weaves the 2 realities of stage and film so that the mediums support and enhance one another. “I was very clear in advance that the use of video had to be a structural decision, which paid attention to the laws and priorities of the medium itself”, he explains. Shot by award winning Belgian film maker Bruno Deville, Goebbels sees the purpose of the live video as “providing 2 perspectives which are difficult to show in the theatre: the reality of the outside world on one hand and a very intimate, isolated private perspective on the other. We cannot pretend to be able to reconstruct something like these on a stage. We reach the limits of representative theatre when we try to achieve that.”

Early critical response to Eraritjaritjaka has been positive, describing it as “genius”, “where nothing is predictable but nevertheless, all entirely convincing.” Recently awarded the Herald Angel Award at the Edinburgh International Festival, the piece has tour dates until late 2005 and will appear next in Berlin, Zurich and The Hague in November. Audience response in particular has pleased Goebbels: “I didn’t know how our construction of the piece would work: the serious beginning, the 20th century string quartet music, the high importance of the live video and the absence of the main character in the second part. But it seems that especially the second part seems to draw audience attention more than I dared to hope. It’s nice to be able to surprise an audience."

The Mondriaan Quartet, Eraritjaritjaka—Museum of Phrases, created by Heiner Goebbels with André Wilms; Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne, Switzerland; April 20

Janice Muller is a theatre director and recipient of the 2003 Keith and Elisabeth Murdoch Travelling Fellowship, from the Victorian College of the Arts.

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 8

© Janice Muller; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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